June 15, 2008

Van Wert Union Rallies for Wages: Hundreds Urge Kongsberg to End Lockout

By Greg Sowinski, The Lima News, Ohio

Jun. 15--VAN WERT -- Jodi Wallenhorst has spent nearly 15 years working at Kongsberg Automotive to support her son and daughter as a single mother.

Since early April, when she and 300 other Kongsberg employees were locked out of their jobs after refusing to take a one-third pay cut, she's scraped by to survive while leaning on family for help. Unable to afford $1,200 a month for an alternative health insurance, she nervously goes without.

"I've always been one to get out and support my kids," Wallenhorst said as she stood Saturday at a rally in downtown Van Wert for Kongsberg employees.

United Steel Workers union representatives and others presented checks to the local union, USW 1-524, for thousands of dollars to provide support.

Dave Caldwell, the assistant director for United Steel Workers in Ohio, said the rally was to bring attention to Kongsberg's way of doing business and to support the workers. The Norwegian company would not get away in its own country with what it has done in the United States in the name of corporate greed, he said.

"Our labor laws are lacking. Others take advantage of it," he said.

Caldwell reminded people Kongsberg employees were not on strike.

"This corporation, out of their greed, locked them out," he said.

AFL-CIO President for Ohio Joe Rugola said American employees know what is best for the country, not foreign corporations. He said members of the local union are standing up for everyone and sending a strong message that American workers deserve good jobs and will not be pushed around.

"They're fighting for all our livelihood," he said.

John Ryan, the state director for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, (DOhio), told several hundred people at the rally the senator was behind them. Brown has sent letters to Kongsberg urging company officials to return to the bargaining table in good faith.

"We wanted to send a message that the senator is with them in their fight to retain good jobs," Ryan said.

Still, for those on the front line like Wallenhorst, the future is uncertain. Although she and her children are healthy now, many older employees with health concerns are struggling without insurance, she said.

There appears no end in sight, and employees fear they may never return, Wallenhorst said.

Kongsberg has refused to negotiate. The only option it has given was to move all wages to $9 an hour, something the company told employees is needed to stay competitive. For those who make more than $14 an hour, that much of a pay cut is way too much.

"None of us were getting rich," Wallenhorst said. "There wasn't a whole lot extra to do anything."

Kongsberg managers in negotiations have said they want to keep work in the United States, but at the same time said they were moving 200 jobs to Mexico, Wallenhorst said. That would leave 100 jobs in Van Wert, she said.

Kongsberg has used replacement workers to run the shifts.

Wallenhorst is not sure she ever will return to work and has started looking for another job, but there are plenty of others in Van Wert like her, out of work and desperately looking. At 37, she's too young to retire and too much in the middle of her life to be without a job.

She has until October when her unemployment benefits run out before crunch time really hits. In the meantime, she plans to keep rallying like her co-workers for jobs at Kongsberg even if they end up losing their jobs.

"Am I holding out hope? Sure, we all want to go back to our jobs," she said.

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